GOP, here’s your ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’

“The world goes on fighting cold little wars
but we must unite and all fight with one cause”
— The Ugly’s, “The Quiet Explosion”

He was described as a “seething compound of hostilities reaching critical mass.” On a blazing August day, Joseph Whitman, 25, a student of architectural engineering at the University of Texas and honorably discharged from the Marines, barricaded himself, high-above, in an observation tower where he methodically killed 13 and wounded 31 others. An act of such wanton violence, according to Time, that “seized his grisly fame as the perpetrator of the worst mass murder in recent U.S. history.” Whitman symbolized a “Gun Toting Nation” and the “Symptoms of Mass Murder.” The year was 1966.

Propagated by a nostalgic national media, suggestions abound that today’s discord and disorder compare squarely with the “social-political turmoil of 1968.” However convenient, that is wrong. A better assessment reveals that conditions in 2016 are more reminiscent of 1966 – a year of “careening momentum” in pop culture and politics.

In his fascinating book, 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded, Jon Savage writes that 1966 was an amalgamation of “noise and tumult, of brightly coloured patterns clashing with black and white politics, of furious forward motion and an outraged, awakening reaction… and a willingness to strive towards seeking the unattainable.” Eerily parallel, this describes 2016.

Savage’s excavation recalls: escalation in Vietnam (today, ISIS and the escalating War on Terror); assertive Black Power ideologues amidst racial tension (today, Black Lives Matter); civil rights movements and the quest for “social and sexual liberation” (today, workplace Equal Pay and transgender rights); rampant drug consumption – LSD, amphetamines (today, heroin and prescription opioids); and psychotic mass violence (today, home-grown terror and global jihad). These were, he concludes, the “cluster of enemies and subversions that appeared to be threatening the country’s way of life.” Rather starkly, he observes that “the old certainties were under attack, the nation riven.”

Culturally, things were moving at warp speed; politically, Savages notes, “the middle ground was eroding” (the New Right and Ronald Reagan’s election as California’s governor). The year was marked by division and dissension even among groups normally neutral (pop icons increasingly had to choose between entertainer or activist).

Much of the anxiety and anguish felt 50 years ago can be attributed to the Vietnam experience, certainly, but also because of the specter of nuclear holocaust. But why was it so acute in 1966?

Savage theorizes “subtle maths,” as an explanation.

World War I ended in 1918 and World War II began in 1939. Twenty-one years. With WW II ending in 1945 and rising global hostilities since then (Berlin, Cuba Missile Crisis, Vietnam and feverish nuclear testing), if “history was going to repeat itself… the Third World War would begin in 1966.” Twenty-one years.

Much of the apprehension and angst felt today by the GOP can be traced not to fear, specifically, but, rather, a document: The Contract With America, implemented in 1995. Twenty-one years ago.  It is the party’s quiet explosion, the psychic radiation of which still lingers.

The Contract “tuned in to the American electorate’s deep yearning for reform in Washington.” Largely a political ploy – it did usher in the Republican majority in the House in 1994 – its legacy was fleeting. Aside from certain procedural reforms, it never really reformed government. Some derided it as a contract on America.

Smoldering demands for reform went unsatiated.

Last decade saw the rise of the Tea Party (remember their “Contract From America”?). In 2010, House Republicans devised the “Pledge to America,” another attempt to change the culture of Washington. Then-House Republican Chair, Mike Pence, called it a “bold initiative that’s marked by powerful ideas, to get our government’s fiscal house in order.” Even with Republicans majorities in the House (2011) and Senate (2015), the documents were largely forgotten and the reforms largely unfulfilled.

Against this backdrop of political unrest and rebellion, sensing no other option, Republicans have chosen a pop creation – not politician – to be their standard bearer, seemingly to give the party a new identity and circumvent the hegemonic conspiracy of Establishment Washington, all to effect reform.

For the GOP, Donald Trump is its “19th Nervous Breakdown” (“center of the crowd, talking much too loud”) and 2016 will mark the year the GOP exploded.

A tycoon and television personality, he is 2016’s pop star — but projects like 1966’s Rolling Stones (“harsh tones”) and works like 1966’s Velvet Underground (who were “not operating by the rules of the arena that they had chosen to work in”). Back then a principal means of conveying popular “ideas, attitudes, [and] lyrics” was the 45-single, which expressed these sentiments with “extraordinary electricity and creativity in two-to-three minutes.” Trump, the personification of polarity, generates, transmits and distributes his loose electricity of ideas through the compression of Twitter, today’s 45.

Speaking before a complex nation of 320 million people at the GOP convention, Trump said “I alone can fix” that which ails us. Islamic terrorism? (“We’re going to win fast”) Healthcare?  (He will “repeal and replace disastrous Obamacare”). The next day, not content to focus on policy matters, he glowed over getting “good marks” on television and harped about tweeting and Facebook.

As a kind of sobering premonition, Savage, in his captivating history, reminds us of this quandary: “The problem with pop culture of the 1960s – exciting and innovative as it was – was that it set up expectations and desires that could never be satisfied.”

The same may be said of Trump in 2016, this year’s disposable avatar.

James P. Freeman

James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer and a former Cape Cod Times columnist. Read his past columns here.